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Tuesday, March 22, 2011

A penetrative look at the cultural aspect of circumcision

Title: Upon this Mountain
Author: Prof. Timothy Wangusa
Reviewer: Dennis D. Muhumuza

I once asked a Makerere University literature lecturer what to him is the greatest Ugandan novel. His answer was instant and emphatic: Upon this Mountain! I bought the book that afternoon! 

Prof. Timothy Wangusa’s first novel is set around Mt Elgon; indeed the front cover sketch of a small boy staring ahead at this protruding mountain should prepare you for the mountainous challenges and other affronts that the central figure Mwambu, must confront during his metamorphosis from childhood to adulthood, or rather from boyhood to manhood. And we are not talking about any ordinary transformation here. You see, Mwambu’s apprehension about circumcision –the important ritual around which the novel revolves –is felt early in the novel. The tension’s so tangible it sears the reader to carry on; turning page after page, to discover how Mwambu will face the crude knife if at all he does!

Mwambu’s fascination with the “exalted, everlasting mountain,” is so stirring that to reach its peak; to touch heaven, becomes his overriding aspiration. It’s evidently symbolic; he must conquer all the small mountains of life to reach the top of the world! 

Mwambi’s real life journey begins when he’s forcefully stopped from sucking his mother’s breast. Soon after his father Masaaba, leads the keen boy so school. Oh how sad he feels to be told the school’s not on the top of the mountain, “where the earth touched heaven and where the world ended!”

All the way, Mwambu exasperates his father with curious questions, and at school is quickly noted for his brilliance, his religious devotion and his close relationship with a beautiful girl called Nambozo.

The 119-page novel engenders a healthy debate on many cultural aspects. Should one be dismissed as a chicken-hearted, half-man for refusing to bow down to cultural dictates, or should he be admired for a taking a stand and embracing modern science rather than end up like the cowardly Wabwire who has to endure the shame of wearing a skirt like a woman the rest of his life?

This 1989 novel crackles with special beauty and humour; thanks to the poetic inclination of its author, which he combines distinctively with African folklore, songs and chants, proverbs and Biblical allusions to explore traditional marriage, superstition, religious hypocrisy, clash of cultures, and promiscuity among other issues.  

Prof. Wangusa’s description and depiction of the ritual of circumcision; the preparation of the candidates and the antecedent excitement is dramatically unforgettable. 

Setting the novel around the mountain, and using other symbolic physical features and items gives it an enviable local flavour that any African reader will gladly identify with. The knife is for example a metaphor of the whole cultural practice of circumcision by which a boy becomes a man among the Bamasaba.  

After I had read, I called the literature lecturer up, to concur. It’s not in vain that Upon this Mountain is on the O-Level literature syllabus. It’s the best Ugandan novel I’ve read so far!   

--Sunday Monitor (Sunday Life magazine, pg. 16), March 20, 2011